- Historic Sites
The Destruction Of A Giant
How I Beat Jess Willard
April 1977 | Volume 28, Issue 3
One afternoon, while sparring in the ring, Willard accidently knocked his pal Walter out cold, causing a great deal of commotion. In a fight camp, then as now, everything is blown up and, no matter how insignificant, becomes newsworthy—especially when the press is tired of rehashing all the well-worn statistics and has run out of things to write about. So the next day, Walter Monaghan’s statement made the news.
“How Jess can hit when he is in earnest! We were only fooling around this afternoon, but you saw how that right came over, didn’t you? I saw it coming, and accustomed as I am to boxing with him, I could not get away from it. You can imagine how the big fellow will hit when he gets into the ring July 4. Say, if he hits Dempsey on the jaw with the old right, they will probably pick up Jack Kearns’s hope in the ten-dollar seats somewhere.”
This infuriated Doc.
“Fooling around? Why, that Willard doesn’t have the brains to fool around. That entire camp is beginning to give me a real pain. If Monaghan has any more comments, he should come directly to me. Why, Jack'11 put Willard away in the first round!”
This in turn annoyed W’illard, so he invited me to watch him train anytime I wanted. Naturally, his offer was turned down. Doc didn’t want to risk my getting anxious, especially since he’d placed a bet on me—which he didn’t tell me about until I was ready to step into the ring. It seems that Doc had approached John “Get Rich Quick” Ryan, a gambler around town. Doc asked Ryan what the odds on a first-round knockout were, for a good friend. Ryan gave him ten to one. That sounded pretty good to Doc, as well as to Damon Runyon. who was along.
Ryan asked Doc, “How much does your friend want to bet?”
The bet was on. Doc and Runyon then hustled around for the dough. It took them all night. Now, if I put Willard away in the first, we would stand to make S 100,000 in addition to our guarantee.
Personally, Doc didn’t think Willard had ever been judged accurately as a fighter. Around the time of the Jack Johnson-Jess Willard fight in Havana, a law was passed prohibiting interstate shipment of fight films. It was only a good many years later that the film of the fight was seen and analyzed, revealing an even contest between Johnson and Willard for twenty rounds before Jack Johnson was apparently knocked out. Doc had somehow seen the fight film and was convinced that Jess Willard was far from a natural fighter. To Doc, he lacked the animal instinct, the inner fury, and the all-important lust for battle.
Jess Willard might not have been a natural fighter, but he sure was confident—confident enough to worry about killing me.
The heat in Toledo was mounting, affecting moods and tempers. It seemed to get hotter and muggier from hour to hour. In the training camp, we found we appreciated as many laughs as we could get, so a man named Max Kaplan appointed himself camp comedian and told old jokes. On a few occasions, Max, Jimmy De Forest, and I entertained the camp, strutting through the grounds with a huge banner proclaiming ourselves to be “The Great and Grand Maumee Bay Band.” We would sing, dance, and take turns blowing on the kazoo. Kids would trail after us as if we were pied pipers. Anything for a laugh. That is, until Max sang his medley of old Yiddish songs. Then everyone cried and cursed Max for making them blubber. We were like one great big family—for the first and last time.
Doc, like everyone else, had his good days and his bad days. He seemed to have difficulty in finding suitable outlets for relaxation. He drank a lot and spat words out like bullets until I’d get worried and speak to him. Then he’d go dry. Just like that. Cold. With no hangover, nothing. The man was truly unique. The only times he would get really sore at me were when I’d take the wheel of the Stutz (borrowed on credit) and go for a drive with Doc sitting beside me. As he saw it, I was now a large investment, and investments shouldn’t drive.
Doc could usually be found with the newspapermen and photographers who swarmed around both camps. One of the unforgettable people in this group was the former lightweight Oscar Matthew “Battling” Nelson, who had been assigned by the Chicago Daily News to cover the fight. Instead of staying with the other reporters, Battling Nelson set himself up in a pup tent by the arena, which was a fair distance away from the training activities. It was his big assignment and he didn’t want to chance missing the fight. Once, at two o’clock in the morning, someone suggested paying Bat a visit. When they got to the tent he was sleeping soundly. Within seconds the pup tent’s pegs had been pulled, leaving poor Bat all tangled up in the tent. By the time he emerged, there was no one in sight.
The days wore on. I trained, I rested, and I thought. I was seldom inactive—inactivity led to laziness, and laziness led to a dead end. No, thanks.
Once, while I was sparring with Jamaica Kid, a gash opened over my right eye. Doc panicked. I assured him it’d be okay by fight time. Someone suggested my wearing a headgear. Doc couldn’t see the “practicality of the damned thing,” but I could, and I insisted on wearing it. The headgear protected my brows and kept my ears from getting knocked in. As soon as Willard’s men saw this, they suggested that maybe he should consider wearing one also. He scoffed at the idea. Newfangled junk, he called it. If he didn’t think of something first, then it wasn’t worth a plugged nickel. He told a few people that, strange or otherwise my training methods would end for good on July 4.